Uluwatu

Trip Start Aug 01, 2006
1
33
35
Trip End Dec 29, 2006


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Where I stayed

Flag of Indonesia  ,
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Most religions have their shrines scattered around the globe. For surfers one of these shrines is Uluwatu, Bali. The cave where you paddle out from became famous after the seventies movie "Bali High." From then on it was a mainstay of magazines and movies. Every grom in middle school draws waves on their notebooks that represent, at least in our imagination, tropical reef breaks.

Our driver took us from Ubud for a very reasonable price. Of course he had to ask for directions a few times and I helped him with street signs. This is par for the course and taking it for granted that the driver knows where he is going is like assuming your students are listening to your lecture. We tried to bargain at the Uluwatu Resort but they were inflexible so we had the driver wait for us until we found cheap accommodations with AC. Christy demands this as the hot days are wearing on her and by her, me.

The hotel, Sandat Mas, was more of a compound with five small rooms linked in a line terminating at a small villa, a central building with a kitchen and a small eating area. Our room was attached to the dining area and used to be part of the old kitchen which explained the little random room with big sinks which turned out to be an excellent place to keep my surf gear.

One morning I had coaxed the Swiss guy staying next to us to get up very early and surf with me. We had met him earlier in Mendewi under stressful circumstances. I was trying to take off on a wave and the bump caught me as he paddled below me. When the collision was unavoidable I jumped off my board and plunged for deep water. I came up to see our tangled boards but luckily neither the boards nor us were damaged. That's how we met but now we were comrades ready to tackle a new break.

It was small and as we were paddling around I kept feeling a stinging sensation like a stinging needle on my arms and legs. Looking around I saw floating on the water hundreds of jellyfish the size of a toddler's fist. Taking a stroke forward I could feel their gelatinous mass hitting my wrist and back of my calves and then a stinging itchy sensation. It was impossible to avoid the masses so we paddled further down the reef. In a thick Swiss accent my friend hollered in an incredulous voice," It looks they are swimming toward me. Why do these f$%^ing things want to sting me?" every time someone new would paddle out I could see them all happy and then they suddenly would stop paddling and start to look at heir arms. Stubbornly we stayed out and were stung repeatedly. I took a wave in, and in the still pockets of water on the reef the jellyfish had congregated in masses. As I walked toward the safety of the shore, I used my board to shield my legs from the vengeful and spiteful jellyfish. From the shore I could see my friend trying to get in. When he reached the shallow shoals I saw the look on his face when he recognized the pools of jellyfish, then his jerking arms and then his mad dash for shore.

Afterwards I showed Christy the patches on my skin as testimony to our intelligence by staying out in small poor surf. But I did get a tube ride that the Swiss guy saw so I could claim it and also tell Christy. She looked as interested as my students but perked up at the sight of my blotchy red skin.

Later on as we sat on the beach I saw a French guy who also was out in the early morning. I asked him if the jellyfish were gone. He said "yes, but so are the waves." I nodded because I didn't know what else to say to keep the conversation going. He then asked me," How do you say, Jelly-fish." Yes, jellyfish", I enthusiastically repeated. Common English words were something I knew and could talk about. He repeated several times to himself, "jellyfish." Then he said the French word for jellyfish. I nodded and repeated it. He then said," jellyfish". "Yes," I said, "jelly, you know gelatinous and fish, it makes sense." He grinned at me," Jellyfish," then shook my hand and said, "Thank you, goodbye." It was a strange conversation but knowing what a jellyfish is called is pretty important when they are stinging the hell out of you just for the sake of stinging.

Before you descend down cement stairs that lead to the ravine, which in turn ends at the beach cave, there is a little hut. This hut is a wood platform with a mat and a wood roof. On the mats sit and lay several ladies that are like the gatekeepers and sirens of folklore that try to coax you in. Instead of luring ships to their ruin these ladies want you to buy t-shirts. We see them so often we know their names and take their badgering in good spirits. If I say I want to buy a t-shirt with someone else their tanned faces crinkle up and show an incredulous look of disbelief as they swiftly and angrily exchange a few words in Indonesian with each other. I told them I wanted to buy shirts from Laura our hotel host. They retorted," she has hotel, she has shirts, she gets everything. You say you buy shirt from me. You want to look now?" "Sorry Nancy maybe tomorrow." The sad thing is I like the t-shirts but now whom I buy it from will likely bring discord between fellow hawkers. It is like pre WW1 Europe and I need to know where my loyalties are. Along with the haggling, I need a day to rest up for the whole process.

The wildlife here is a constant reminder that we are in a distant land. I get up near dawn to avoid the crowds and as I descend the cement staircase when the shadows are long and blurry it is not uncommon to see whole families of monkeys hanging out, fighting, or sitting in quiet repose. As I pass them their brown eyes follow me and I clutch my wetsuit vest more tightly in case they take a violent and sudden interest in it. I cannot stress enough that there is a significant difference in seeing a wild animal in a cage and seeing it within leaping distance. As we know, little hands like to grab.

After a surf session, I was making my way through the cave and looking down to make sure my already battered feet did not hit more coral when I heard something scurrying and scratching. Started I looked up in time to see a lizard the size of my leg rambling away. Luckily we were equally scared and he sought sanctuary in a nook of rock. I could imagine the bacteria growing in its mouth like a middle school science project.

The water is startling clear, and the reef and the multi-colored fish passing over it can be seen underneath my feet as I sit on my board. Many of the fish are as large as my thigh, sleek, lithe, and muscular. Frequent large splashes occur from large fish jumping out of the water, and circles of rippling water are from schools of small fish.

We are now mentally stuck in Uluwatu. The room is air-conditioned, the surf is good, we have made some friends, and we can't think of a single reason to go anywhere else. Most of the time we don't know what day it is and it is hard to keep track of where our time goes, if it goes at all. Our routine is now firmly planted. I pass the monkeys and surf from 6:30 to I get tired. We eat breakfast at the hotel (banana pancakes and fruit. Then we lounge around away from the heat. Lunchtime we pass the t-shirt ladies at the top of the hill who always give rousing hellos and often look like basking seals lying on their mats. However the loud barks are replaced by croaks of "Want to buy a t-shirt" or "You buy something from me today". There is a long cement path full of tables and chairs that clings to the contour of the cliff overlooking the surf. Along this is a long line of wurongs. A wurong consists of a small kitchen nestled in the back, then a glass counter with a variety of items for sale like t-shirts and surfing wax, and a big platform covered by a mat. The fronts are all open and they are nestled so closely together it is hard to distinguish one from the other. We always go to the same wurong for lunch. Before, during, and after lunch we haggle for stuff. We buy DVDs from Danny, ice cream from the guy who wears a jacket in the blazing heat, jewelry and t-shirts from a bunch of ladies, and surf pictures from the cool local surfers who smoke and wear contemporary sunglasses. It's not uncommon for our table to be piled high with wares like a camel bringing goods to a foreign market. Sometimes I can't handle it and walk away to watch the surf or pretend I'm autistic and stare at nothing. Collette takes this time to take her shoes off and crawl up on the restaurant mat. She knows they keep a toy car there and the ladies like her. She also knows that there are kids in another building and she frequently disappears to visit them. When she is not getting her hair fondled or her cheeks grabbed she is happy and independent here and it gives us a break. She even leaned over and gave the owner of the wurong a big hug and kiss and said she loves her. Where this outpouring of affection came from I do not know but I do know it is rarely directed at me.

After the about the second day, I had lost all sense of time so this is an estimation, we meet the couple who owned the small villa attached to the hotel. He was from North Carolina and had a slight Southern drawl and a wicked cutback (Ashley); she was from Taiwan and four months pregnant (Johanna). To say they were nice and generous to us is an understatement. For the next two weeks they drove us around, gave us advice, let us use their swimming pool and kept us entertained. Any time there was a pause in the conversation Ashley would whip out another story of his brother like someone putting another log on the fire to stay warm. "My dad says he could mess up a free lunch" and from the stories he told I would agree. He talked of his brother crashing or destroying motorcycles, parts of his house and a boat. The latter sank in front of his house, "practically in his front yard".

We became more acquainted with Ashley and Johanna when we had decided to go to the restaurant down the road. Having received a ride there we had brought the stroller to walk past the dry hot landscape back to our room. Across the street from the restaurant situated on the corner rested a raised wooden platform covered by a bamboo mat. It was open on one side facing the street and had a corrugated metal roof. Spray painted on the side in fat letters was "the Uluwatu Street Boyz". A group of three to eight guys hang out here drinking beer, hooting at friends passing by, and doing absolutely nothing productive. The throb of techno music and very bad pop music could be felt and heard at our table across the street. After our meal they asked us if we needed a ride. Greatly underestimating the distance home we declined. On the way back we had passed several stores that were really part of people's houses that displayed and sold a random assortment of goods. They looked like open garages with a glass counters and a few shelves. We randomly picked one and an old topless lady came out to greet us. In the beginning she modestly covered herself with her arms like a Josephine Baker show but then she became more comfortable and we became less comfortable. Her son came out and they were all smiles and made play with Collette. It was a surreal experience because the Balinese are prone to modesty. Christy and I both pretended there was nothing unusual going on at the time and that there wasn't a topless Balinese woman trying to help us pick out soda pop and crackers for Collette. When we returned to the road we started to chat about what a strange experience it was. About three quarters of the way home Ashley and Johanna, sitting comfortably in their air-conditioned van, passed us. They turned around and picked us up and were surprised to learn where we were walking back from. Later, he measured the distance to make sure we had a specific number to attach to our folly and to chuckle. I still think compared to the vast distances we had covered in Europe it wasn't too bad.

We asked Ashley about the offerings (see Ubud) and he explained that a lot of them were dedicated to things that are mischievous or that can cause grief. For instance there is a rock jutting out above the cement stairway leading down to the cave that is exactly at head level. This dangerous promontory often gets an offering (small yellow box) with flowers and fruit, swallowed in a cloud of incense. Ashley went into a long and detailed description of their own holy rock. In the middle of the hotel lawn is a cement hole that outlines and preserves this holy rock. When they were building their house they staked out a protective barrier around the rock until they could later preserve it in cement. Along one of the main roads there was another rock that jutted out into the street causing a slight traffic hazard. This was also declared a holy rock and was often sprinkled with offerings like ornaments on a Christmas tree. I can't separate the memory of Bali from the smell of incense and these offerings.

As time went by Collette became infatuated with Johanna and we started to use her name like we use ice cream. Collette if you come here right now you can see Johanna (have ice cream), Collette if you change your clothes then we can see Johanna (have ice cream). We even went as far as saying, "do you think Johanna would like that?" Even now Collette asks in a sad voice, "Dada where is Johanna? She's far away right?"

The surf at Uluwatu was good but never great like the visions of tropical reefs I think about during teaching seminars. It was difficult to predict what the wave was going to do and a slight variation in direction would quickly and efficiently determine the quality of the wave. A small wave that hit the reef in the right direction would grow in size and wheel down the line, and one that looked good but hit the reef too directly would quickly section in an explosion of white water. I surfed every day for two weeks and still did not have a comfortable working knowledge of the break. I did catch an excellent tube ride way inside at Race Tracks. It was a small day and the wave started as nothing but suddenly developed into a pitching lip and I was inside the green room. I felt my surfing was sub par and blamed it on my board, lack of understanding the break and general lack of surfing skill. However it's truly a legendary place and I found no fault in the exciting and beautiful waves.

The only other place I surfed was a right-hander that Ashley drove me to. It was fairly close to shore and hollow. Six to eight local guys sat on the peak exploiting all of their local knowledge at my expense. I distinctly remember watching one of them drive to the bottom on a pitching wave as it drove across the reef and his buddy saying, "Do something." What I would be doing is just trying to make it. I was downgraded to left-overs but it was great to see a classical reef break doing what the surf movies and magazines always depict.

In the end we were sad to leave Bali. My feet looked like Frankenstein's face from the reef but we developed a deep appreciation for Bali and its people. The people of Bali were some of the most friendly and non-imposing people I had ever met. It made me question and revaluate our lifestyle and perceptions in the US. I felt ashamed of my behavior in contrast to their constant waving, smiles, and acceptance of us. The only thing I noticed was that being nice was exhausting. So we said good-bye to Ashley, and Collette in particular said a very reluctant good-bye to Johanna (yes they drove us to the airport too) and we headed to Australia.

A heartfelt thanks to the people of Bali for being so generous and kind to us. Thank you.
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